Keep the paprika

Sitting next to me at work is a Macedonian Australian with strong links to both cultures. He’s a devout Doggies supporter and follows Oz at the Olympics, but he listens to Balkan brass music and dreams about writing a cultural history of Macedonia. He tells dad jokes at work, but at the same time agonises what he’s going to do with his life. He’s a little shorter than average, stocky, has a buzzcut and an amiable face. He looks a bit like an emoji. He is a lovely guy, self-deprecating, good-natured, generous, and curious.

He is unfortunately one of those guys that people don’t take completely seriously, despite being a very productive worker. He’s slightly clumsy, and combined with his self-effacement people tend to judge him on those attributes. We’re both lovers of Seinfeld, and more than once I’ve told him he has a fair bit of George in him, which he freely acknowledges.

All of that is pretty normal, but on top of that he is a voracious reader who thinks deeply about things. He’s one of the few people these days who seek to question and understand the world that we live in. His passion is non-fiction, and more generally, knowledge.

We’ve struck up a friendship – I attended his breakfast birthday do a few weeks ago. Almost from day one he seemed to look up at me in his over-humble way. We speak about the issues of the day, which he loves. I can carry on a conversation with him about the things he’s passionate about. On top of that I have a back-story that intrigues him. He’s forever telling me I’m too good for the place. A part of me agrees, but I always demur – a man is always worthy of the work he’s doing. There’s a reason I’m answering phones.

For all his affability he’s deeply frustrated. He becomes angry at what he perceives as the mediocrity of our immediate superiors, and can get momentarily hot under the collar. I try to calm him down. I know what he feels, but the difference is that I have come to accept that mediocrity is the norm. I feel it, but lock it in. I get more upset at the lack of standards, but come to accept that I’m a dinosaur in that regard also.

More than work S is deeply frustrated about what he will do with his life. He’s 29, and married to a lovely and intelligent woman. Though his behaviours sometimes belies it, he’s smart in his own way, and thoughtful. He hates his job, and the company we work for. He’s forever casting around for something else to do, some meaning to his life.  Once more I’m there to calm and counsel him. I told him the other day that when I was his age I was in an ordinary job coming off a devastating love affair and with little thought to my career. Things change.

Of course I have my own hopes and ambitions, but he makes me think about them differently. I find myself articulating advice to him that I had never consciously thought of before. The other night in bed I lay in bed thinking about him, then me. The next day I took him aside. Every person has two destinies, I told him, the destiny the world chooses for them, and the destiny they choose for themselves. You can choose to serve destiny, or dictate it. That sounded grand even to me. 95% go with what they’re served up, I told him, it’s the other 5% who go their own way.  Find what you’re good at, reference it against what you like, and follow that.

For whatever reason I realised that I had unconsciously decided many years ago that I was to be one of the 5%. I think likely it was a combination of impatience and curiosity, and perhaps the knowledge that I had more in me and I couldn’t waste it. Add to that a native bastardry and it seems now a foregone conclusion.

During the week my manager said that if there was an Olympic sport for contrarianism then I would win the gold medal. I laughed out loud at that. It wasn’t intended as a compliment, but I was glad all the same. I believe in independent thought and expression, but also I refuse to allow myself to be neatly categorised. I’d told someone earlier in the week that I’d never read a word of Harry Potter because I remember seeing everyone reading it and talking about it and decided then I didn’t want to join them. So yes, I am often consciously contrary. It may be foolish, or even petty occasionally, but I’d rather start from that position.

This is the thing that comes from self-knowledge, which is possibly the greatest thing any person can aspire to. I’m the sum of all the different qualities and attributes I possess. They blend into the recipe that is me. It’s tempting to isolate them, but it’s wrong also – if you leave paprika out of the pot it’s not goulash.

This brings comfort to me. It would be easy to be down on myself and my life. I have very little, after having quite a lot. Objectively speaking the future remains problematic. There is a reason I’m answering phones, and I have to accept that a large part of the reason is the man I am. Yes circumstances played a part, but I over-reached also, as I often will. I accept that though as one of the risks of being the man I am. If I changed that I wouldn’t be who I am, and while you might say tone it down a bit (as my sister does), it changes the mix. It’s not goulash anymore.

More to the point the same thing that has brought me undone is the very thing that saw me rise through the ranks. The thing that kills you is the same thing that makes you supreme, you can’t separate it. It brought me success and the spoils of it. I was hungry and ambitious. I had talent, and knew it. I was unashamed of being all I could be. I was not without fear, but it was generally brushed aside with ease. This was the destiny I chose for myself – to strive, to overcome what was defined for me, and to discover what lay beyond the horizon (curiosity, and the exhilaration of trying and doing was a far greater motivator than thoughts of wealth or power). I wanted to live all the way up – and I still do.

I can sit here today with many regrets, and sometimes they weigh heavily upon me. I wish things were different. I’m sad that I neglected some of the things I really wanted, such as family. They’re passing regrets though. As they say, you make your bed.. And anyway nothing is yet said and done. This is what I believe. I’ll get back, and be better for it. It’s been tough, but in terms of self-knowledge and worldly wisdom I’ve gained a lot – which I would never have if I had kept sailing along. Life continues, and I’ve got a stake in it.

Perhaps that the advice I should give to S: know thyself. Most would be confused by that. It seems beside the point when you’re itching to get ahead. I am the man I’m meant to be, for better or worse, because I’ve made it so. It’s true for me, but the truth for S is almost certainly different. Know thyself, and don’t be afraid to be that person. You don’t need to conquer the world, you don’t need to be a worldly success. Truth comes in different guises, and sometimes it’s humble, but if it’s yours then believe in it.

Whatever happens, go forward with open eyes, accept the person you are, and live by your principles, and not those thrust upon you. Feel the wind in your hair.

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